Asam Udang

In this recipe, we see the Peranakan’s penchant for using a strong flavor element with a mild ingredient – tamarind. The use of this acidic and slightly sweet fruit perhaps harkens back to its introduction by the Tamils who controlled the Straits of Melaka in the 11th century. This application is not only found in this shrimp dish but also in another made with pork belly. 

The basic Nyonya version of this dish is very simple, comprising of only shrimp and tamarind paste as the main ingredients. However, this version is a “supped up” recipe that I learned from Tri Suherni, who worked as my parents’ cook for many years. Here, she brings her Javanese background with the addition of garlic, shallots, chilies, and whole peppercorns into the whole flavor profile. 

The shells are kept on the seafood for two purposes. First is to keep the shrimp moist during the cooking, and second, to act as a canvas for the tamarind sauce to hold on to. The deveining process allows the tamarind to permeate the flesh during marination. 

The best way to really enjoy this dish is the following. Holding the shrimp by its tail, bite the head off, and savor the sauce while you bite down to release the slightly bitter head juices. After removing the shell from the mouth, bite off a chunk, savor the sauce as you manipulate the shell off the flesh – the deveining facilitates this easy removal. Scoop a spoonful of rice into the mouth and chew the mixture together. After completely working on a shrimp, don’t forget to lick the remaining sauce on the fingers. There is no finer way to enjoy it, which, to me, is totally delightful for this gourmand. 

Serves 4

Marination time: 1 to 2 hours

Preparation and cooking time: 15 minutes

500 grams (1 lb) medium-large to large shrimp, unpeeled and deveined

2 tablespoon unseeded tamarind pulp, mixed well with ½ cup room-temperature water and strained

5 whole white peppercorns 

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped roughly

5 small/50 grams shallots, peeled and chopped roughly

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 red chili peppers, stemmed, seeded, and cut into half lengthwise and into 1-inch pieces

Salt

Sugar

If shrimps are not deveined, follow these steps:

Holding the shrimp in one hand, hold a small serrated knife on other hand, and start at the top of the first shell after the head. Cut into the shell and into the flesh all the way until before the last segment before the tail, deep enough to expose the vein – do not go deeper than the vein. Remove the vein and dip it with the fingers in a bowl of water to release it.

Snip off the end of the shrimp nose and the antennae with a pair of scissors or a knife. Add the shrimp to a large bowl, and drain the shrimp very well of water. Add the tamarind paste, and mix well. Marinate for 1 to 2 hours in the refrigerator.  

When the marinated shrimps are ready:

In a food processor, add the peppercorns and crush into fine bits but not into a fine powder. Add the garlic and shallots, and process into a fine paste. Remove and reserve.

In a pan on medium-high heat, add the oil. Add the processed mixture and fry for 2 minutes until aromatic. Add the marinated shrimp and tamarind mixture, and add ½ teaspoon sugar and ½ teaspoon salt, or to taste. Cook each side of shrimp for 2 minutes only. Add the chilies and stir for 2 minutes until the sauce is completely dry. Serve immediately.

My ebook on the Baba Nyonya Peranakan culture is now available on Amazon for USD $5.99. Please visit the main page for details – CLICK

Udang Lemak Masak Nenas

A recent inquiry on a Facebook Baba Nyonya recipe group about memorable Nyonya dishes produced the mention of this amazingly delicious dish, hence my publishing of my grandmother’s recipe.

This signature dish of my maternal grandmother, Madam Leong Yoke Fong, was one of my favorites when I was growing up. It is similar to the Thai version, in which duck is the main ingredient instead of shrimp, but this recipe has a more robust flavor. The sauce used here has a unique combination of flavors: sweet-sourness and fruitiness of the tamarind and pineapple, pungency from the belacan (shrimp paste) and aromatic roots, brininess and depth of flavor from the salted fish, creaminess from the coconut milk, and heat from the chili peppers. It seems nearly impossible that these disparate ingredients could come together harmoniously, but the final result is a wonderful dish that was definitely a gastronomic highlight for my family during our large dinners.

If possible, use freshly cut pineapple to let the fruity and acidic flavors cut through the rich sauce. You may also use canned pineapple chunks packed in its own juice and not in syrup. You can find the salted fish in Asian stores, either at room temperature or in the frozen section—use the small imported croakers if you can’t find Malaysian-produced ones.

Popoh (the Cantonese title we used for my maternal grandmother) would be dressed kemban-style while she moved busily around the kitchen preparing our nightly banquets. This was done so her sleeves would not get in the way of prepping and cooking, and so she could keep cool in the hot kitchen. She insisted on cooking this rich seafood curry in an unglazed earthenware pot called a belanga (website – 2nd photo), mixing it with a wooden round spoon worn down to a flat lip. Interestingly, cooking it this way imparted a je ne sais quoi to the dish that can never be replicated when using a metal pot; to this day, I vividly remember the earthy tinge the pot imparted to the dish. I believe taste memory rarely fades, and such is the case with my memory of the wonderful flavors of this dish. I also believe you will be impressed once you try this recipe and taste all the different notes found in this delectable marriage of ingredients and flavors.

Serves 4 to 6

Preparation time: 45 minutes

5 chili bol or chile puya dried peppers, stemmed and seeded, or 1 tablespoon paste

4 Finger hot red chili peppers, stemmed and seeded, or 1½ tablespoons paste/sambal oelek

2 lemongrass stalks, white part only, roughly chopped

1.5 centimeters (½ inch) galangal root, peeled, or ¼ teaspoon powder

4 candlenuts, shelled, or macadamia or cashew nuts (optional)

10 small (100 grams/3½ ounces) shallots, peeled, roughly chopped

2.5 centimeters (1 inch) turmeric root, peeled, or ½ teaspoon powder

6 grams/½ teaspoon belacan (shrimp paste)

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 head coconut shavings, first and second milk pressings extracted separately (¾ cup each), or 1 cup canned thick coconut milk plus ½ cup water

4 or 5 (2-centimeter [1-inch]) pieces dried fish, preferably the bones (Malaysian type or dried croaker)

1½ cups pineapple chunks (medium-size chunks with core removed)

2 or 3 tamarind slices (asam gelugur/keping), or 1 tablespoon tamarind paste mixed with ½ cup hot water and strained

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

20 medium prawns, unshelled

  1. Pour enough hot water on dried chilis to cover and soak until they are soft. Drain. Purée in a food processor until they form a smooth paste.
  2. In the food processor, add the fresh chili peppers, lemongrass, galangal, candlenuts, shallots, turmeric, and belacan and purée into a fine paste. Remove and set aside.
  3. In a pot on medium-high heat, heat the oil. Add the processed spice paste and fry for 8 minutes until aromatic.
  4. Add the first-pressing coconut milk slowly, and bring to a simmer; if using canned coconut milk, add it all now. Add the dried fish and pineapple slices, reduce the heat to medium low, and cook, covered, for about 5 minutes.
  5. If using the second-pressing coconut milk, add it now. Add the tamarind slices or tamarind water. Cover and cook for another 10 minutes.
  6. Add the salt and sugar, or to taste. Lower the heat and bring to a gentle boil, then cover and cook for 5 minutes. If the sauce gets too thick, add ½ cup water.
  7. Add the prawns and cook until just done, 2 to 3 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Remove the tamarind slices and serve immediately.
My ebook on the Baba Nyonya Peranakan culture is now available on Amazon for USD $5.99. Please visit the main page for details – CLICK